Monthly Archives: July 2014

Te Wiki o te Reo: on learning the useful languages

Yesterday the Press posted a beautiful editorial about te reo Māori, in te reo Māori. (There’s also an English translation.) Don’t read the comments: they boil down to the conviction that te reo is a waste of time because it’s not used outside of Aotearoa.

When I was a wee Pākehā of five or six my Mum gave me these little books in Māori and I learnt a bit. I still remember a few words: āporo; ringaringa. I also remember deciding that I didn’t want to learn Māori because everyone learnt Māori. Yeah. I was an elitist brat (of the “If it’s popular it’s stupid and I’m clever so I don’t like it” line of reasoning), but usually I was at least accurate about what was popular, and come on, St Martins Christchurch in the 1980s? no-one learnt Māori beyond “E tu, tamariki mā!” Thinking about this yesterday I realised that I must have somehow, at age frigging six, picked up on the notion that learning Māori is Politically Correct.

When I was six or seven Mum took me to Japanese lessons. I still remember a few sentences: Ohaiyo gozaimasu. Watashi wa Deborah desu. Also about three hiragana: つ, し, の. I stuck with it for a year or two, I think.

When I was in high school I studied French and German (mandatory), then Spanish and a bit of Latin (extension). At university I kept up the French and added Mandarin Chinese. When Chinese got too hard for me (memorisation is not my forte, so I couldn’t cope with the characters beyond stage 2) I finally took a year of Māori. And a semester of NZSL at Hagley.

I made good use of the French, I’ll admit; there was an exchange trip and a prize trip and a study trip and eventually a year teaching English in New Caledonia. This paved the way for teaching English in South Korea for two years. I learnt a fair bit of Korean while there and got very fluent at phoning up for pizzas and giving directions to taxi drivers. I also learnt an impressive amount of Mongolian when I visited Ulaan Baatar for three weeks.

I also went on a one-week tour to Beijing, where after two years of university Mandarin I spoke the only sentence in Mandarin I’ve ever in my life spoken in the wild: 哪儿? (Where is the water? I couldn’t understand the supermarket employee’s answer, but I followed their pointing and got my water.) And I went on a one-week visit to Japan, where after all my childhood studies of this useful trade language, I still had to consult my phrasebook to say my sole real-life sentence of Japanese: Watashi wa doko desuka? (Where am I? I’m not sure the woman I spoke to understood me; she waved over a teenage boy to talk to me in English.)

So much for the useful trade languages of Asia! But the thing is, as a New Zealand resident, I spend most of my time in New Zealand. And you know what? It’s not Japanese spoken at all the pōwhiri I’ve attended. It’s not Chinese spoken in Parliament. The songs we sing as a nation – E Ihoa Atua and Ka Mate and Tūtira Mai and Pōkarekare Ana and Hine e Hine and Whakaaria Mai – aren’t in Korean. Our national classics, taught in high schools – Pōtiki, Whale Rider – don’t have large passages in Thai. I’ve never once been called on to give a mihi in Mongolian.

If we want to fully participate in New Zealand society and culture – to engage with all of what makes us Aotearoa New Zealand – then we need to be able to understand and speak Māori. He taonga te reo: and like all the greatest treasures, like gold and diamond and pounamu, it’s precious, and it’s beautiful, and above all it’s useful.